In early 2011, when I visited a number of young Hong Kong artists’ in their studios, they spoke of their frustration at the focus of curators on art from mainland China, and of their sense of being a ‘poor relation’. Add to that the tensions simmering just below the surface as cashed–up mainlanders poured into Hong Kong, and it seemed a recipe for resentment. In the two years since, much has changed. I returned to Hong Kong in December and found a very different atmosphere. There are undeniable controversies, tensions, jealousies, and scandals (this is the artworld, after all) but also an emergent pride and optimism. The boom created by M+ and the West Kowloon Cultural District mega-development ; the redevelopment of the Central Police Station; the exhibition of 18 artists in ‘Hong Kong Eye’ at Saatchi in London and Hong Kong Art Fair’s absorption into the Art Basel ‘brand’ have all had an impact. Contemporary art in Hong Kong is emphatically not ‘China Lite’. It is something altogether different, reflecting a very specific history and culture.
Artist Lam Tung-pang typifies a specific Hong Kong identity, expressing the excitement but also the anxiety of this particular ‘floating world’. He synthesises his deep knowledge of Chinese art history and his love for traditional ink painting into a highly contemporary practice. Challenging traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture he produces paintings and installations which reflect his knowledge of the Chinese landscape tradition and embody ideas about memory and history. His signature technique involves painting, drawing or stencilling images observed and remembered from Tang, Yuen and Qing Dynasty paintings onto large sheets of plywood.
On my first visit to his studio I saw paintings from his ‘Travel and Leisure’ series which represent the beauty of nature under siege from encroaching urbanisation. Lam looks with nostalgia to old Hong Kong. In a city hurtling towards an uncertain future after 2047, the date marking 50 years after the ‘handover’ to China, he worries about what has been lost. He loves his studio in Fo Tan because, he says, he can look out the window and the mountain is always there. There is a sense of permanence, despite the fact that you can see the haze of pollution like a veil over the border with mainland China.
In many works the misty mountains of literati painting turn into the towers of Hong Kong. At once lyrical and intentionally awkward, like the cheesy museum dioramas of his youth, they suggest innocence betrayed. TIny model houses, people, animals and trees are attached to some works, creating a toy landscape, an escape into a whimsical fantasy world. “Painting is like playing” he says. Lam himself, however, is immensely serious about what he does. Intense behind owlish spectacles, the artist told me he immerses himself in Chinese artistic traditions but also loves Medieval and Early Renaissance painting. Those intricately detailed backgrounds behind the main action in works by artists such as Piero della Francesca have always been influential.
In December I visited Lam in his new studio. My visit followed a number of high-profile commissions and his selection for the Saatchi show. He will have a solo booth at Art Basel Hong Kong in May, and has recently exhibited an 8-metre painting, “Things Happened on the Island” created for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. A commission for the MTR will be seen next year as well: a 40-metre work for a new station near Hung Hom, where the artist was born. His elation is mixed with sadness at the rapid pace of change, and the submerging of a specifically Hong Kong identity into the enormity of China. Sometimes, he says, “locals feel lost in their own city.” His parents and grandparents came from Fujian Province during the Cultural Revolution and the uncertainty of the second generation migrant is mixed with a fierce loyalty to Hong Kong. This hybridity characterises his sense of himself as an artist. Identity issues come into his practice, he says, “sometimes just as a need for quietness or refuge – like literati scholars in retirement in their gardens.”
Lam has been spending days drawing from the collection of ink paintings in the Heritage Museum near Sha Tin, developing works inspired by Tang Dynasty ceramic horses, which he also draws in the antique shops of Hollywood Road. The result is a series of 3-dimensional paintings on wheeled plywood boxes: two-sided horses; one side drawn from a close study of the object itself and the other from its image in a catalogue or a book. These works suggest ideas about the reproducibility and value of traditional objects. If half the ‘Tang’ horses on Hollywood Road are fakes, how are we to think about authenticity and a sense of history? While his work may seem embedded in a distant Chinese past, it is actually all about the here and now.
Currently Lam Tung-pang is travelling in the US on an Asian Cultural Council Fellowship, looking at the way that American museums and cultural institutions represent traditional Chinese painting; making work; and giving talks about the sometimes contradictory aspects of his practice.